Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Story in the Session

Our last session ended after our heroes (the player characters) defended Westfall from a group of Shadar-kai raiders.  I first went around the table and asked each player say a few things about how their characters spent the following few days.

I next introduced the central McGuffin:  a previously encountered bandit named Nightcloak had escaped and kidnapped one of the town’s children.  The party’s investigation led them to “Clintok’s Ranch,” in a way I didn’t anticipate.  They didn’t know that an invitation from Clintok was waiting for them back in town; instead they sent the party assassin and the party monk in for reconnaissance.  They quickly discovered that Clintok and his fellow halfings are an odd bunch: they wear animal masks that seem to correspond with their jobs at the ranch.  This was inspired by the Granbretan empire in Michael Moorcock’s The History of the Runestaff .

The first encounter of the day was an audition.  At the snap of a finger, ten of Clintok’s minions attacked (remember that scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?).

Clintok did not engage in the battle, though the assassin nearly changed that in a moment of eagerness.  I had his stats ready, just in case.  From my perspective, this was a moment of big decision for the campaign.  While I didn’t expect them to kill Clintok, and I have big plans for him later, I wasn’t about to say ‘no.’ It would have been a tough battle against a solo, but they could have prevailed and there would have been long term, interesting consequences.

Clintok revealed that the Nightcloak not only kidnapped a baby from town, he stole an artifact from Clintok’s private collection.  He offered a deal:  if they retrieved the item, he would use his connections to clear their criminal records.  He then gave them an arcane compass-like device that would help them locate the artifact.  They soon learned that in the right hands, the compass would also let them see through the eyes of the artifact’s carrier, and listen to his surface thoughts.

Their pursuit took them in into a nearby fey infused forest.  This forest has been a name on a map for over a year, so I was excited to let their characters get in and explore a bit.  I emphasized how dark and weird the forest was, with an uncontrolled, random feel.  While the forest wasn’t sick, it felt a little like the bad side of the warden’s hometown.

The forest grew dense, and the sprites suddenly gathered into two aggressive swarms (Tinkerbell’s friends were mean!), and the party was ambushed by a Duregar named Doc (in the forest?!) with his pet fey panthers.  As with most good Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition encounters, there was a moment in the battle, after the monsters had used their recharge and encounter powers, and things were looking a little bleak for the player characters.  However, used solid tactics and won the day without too much drama.

I had one more encounter prepared for that session, but by then I knew we didn’t have time.  We had started later than I’d hoped, and the party had spent quite awhile investigating Clintok’s ranch.  That allowed me to end the session on a cliff-hanger.

The forest soon cleared and the party came upon a house constructed of gold, platinum, gems, jewels and magical weapons.  In short, there was everything an adventurer could desire, ready to be plucked.  There was movement inside the building, but they couldn’t see any details.  After one of the PCs tossed a pebble at one of the windows, an old elfish woman opened the door and introduced herself (“Miss White”). – end of session.

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Filed under 4e D&D, Fluff, Fluff/Inspiration, Play, Session Debrief

Game Prep and Digital Pictures

Today I’m doing some more prep for my game next Saturday.  This time I’m using a lot of maps and Dungeon Tiles, which makes encounter design different for me.  Before I would draw maps on paper, then transcribe it them onto my battle mat.  This time I sorted through my box of tiles and maps, and worked out how I want it all to look.  I took a few digital pictures, so I’ll remember what it looks like when game time comes.  I also put some miniatures on them, just so I’d have a sense of scale for each battle.

If you’re one of my players, there are some vague spoilers, but it shouldn’t ruin anything if you look at the pics.

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Self Grading

I know that I’m stronger in some areas of my Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition playing and dungeon mastering than others.  In the pursuit of continuous improvement, I’d like to share some recent reflections on my strengths and weaknesses.

I’m a good role-player.  I really enjoy crafting characters and sticking with their personalities during a game.  When fellow players or the DM provide story or character hooks, I try and grab them in order to expand the story.

On the other hand, I’m pretty average with the mechanical parts of the game.  After nearly two years, I still only vaguely understand the stealth and jumping rules, and I’m not particularly great at min/maxing during character creation.  I don’t often embarrass myself, though, and when I regularly play a character, I usually stay on top of what he can do:  I can’t remember how stealth works because I’ve been playing a plate mail wearing paladin since nearly the beginning.  Ayn couldn’t hide from a deaf, sleeping and blind mule in a snowstorm.

I’m not very good at adding numbers in my head either, especially after 10 p.m..  Since we normally quit around that time, I’m usually okay, but I have been caught accidentally cheating on to-hit rolls during the closing rounds of a long solo battle.  I wonder how many other times I cheated without realizing?

As a dungeon master, many of these strengths translate.  I think my players find my NPCs interesting, and I think the game’s story is reasonably compelling.  I feel good about my ability to run a typical combat (though, again, there’s always room for improvement), and to provide meaningful decisions throughout a game.  We aren’t a sandbox play group, but no one wants to ride on a single set of rails.

I do have a history of getting too cute with the difficulty of my encounters.  I once put my party of first level characters up against a vampire lord.  That wasn’t a badly designed encounter, but it was not a good fit for my group of mostly new players, and I was still a rookie DM myself.  Then there was the accidental near-TPK when I forgot to factor in a wraith’s ‘elite’ experience point value to the budget.  I won’t even mention the two close-call encounters…

On a few of those occasions, the encounters were more challenging because of decisions made by the players, and/or would have been easier had the players made different choices.  Lucky for me, my current D&D group is pretty forgiving of my mistakes.

As a D&D player or DM, what are you good at?  What are you trying to improve?

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Communication’s Golden Path

There are a few seemingly simple habits that are easy to forget, and make any Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game smoother and more fun.

Role playing comes easily during skill challenges and between encounters, but it’s very common for combat to devolve into an exchange of numbers, with little or no narration.  It makes for a richer experience when players and dungeon masters keep narrating and role-playing during combat.  Instead of simply calling out “23 versus AC, 32 fire damage” include the fluff: “I summon a wave of fire energy through my sword, that’s 23 versus AC and the waves of flame surround him for 32 points of fire damage.”  The flavor text included with player character powers provide a nice aid for describing those abilities, and can simply be read if you have trouble of articulating the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is best when players and DMs are transparent and mechanically precise when describing what is happening.  Many key words have mechanical connotations that aren’t always intuitive.  For example, when a character ‘runs’ it allows two extra spaces of movement and grants combat advantage.  Should that same character simply move their full normal speed or take a double move, there are no such negative consequences.  While it seems accurate to describe a double move as a ‘running,’ this can create confusion.  ‘Shifts’ and ‘moves’ are similarly hazardous when described imprecisely.

It’s also best when players and DMs include the details of what is happening when it comes to who has attacked whom, what the ‘to hit’ total was and what defense it attacked, even when it seems obvious or inconsequential.  D&D is a complicated game and many powers have unusual triggers.  It’s certainly not reasonable for any one person to keep track of every detail; instead, good, clear communication allows the entire group to use its collective mind to manage it all.

As in all things, the key is to find and walk the golden path.  Include the crunchy details, so everyone can track the mechanics, but wrap the crunch within the context of the story in order to make the experience one worth tracking.

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Filed under 4e D&D, Advice, Advice/Tools, continuous improvement, Fluff, Fluff/Inspiration, Information management

Birthday Haul

I had a birthday last week and received a gift certificate for Paizo Publishing (thank you, Zobmie!).  Much of Paizo’s recent efforts have been in support o f their Pathfinder Role-playing Game, but they sell many kinds of gaming goodness.  Since my group is strongly (and happily) entrenched in Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, I steered away from the Pathfinder stuff and took it as an opportunity to take experiment with some other kinds of items.

I ordered Issue 3 of Level Up magazine by Goodman games and Issue 13 of Kobold Quarterly by the Open Design folks.  I was a long time subscriber to Dragon Magazine in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and have been curious about the current generation of gaming magazines ever since I returned to the hobby with 4th edition.  I also purchased a Game Mastery Map Pack: Ancient Forest set.  I have some of Wizards of the Coast’s Harrowing Halls and Fane of the Forgotten Gods Dungeon Tiles and was looking for something I could use for outdoor encounters.

I’m pleased with my haul:  I had forgotten how nice it is to have a gaming magazine to leaf through and read at leisure.  I appreciate what Wizards is doing with their online content, but I miss a Dragon Magazine that’s an actual magazine.

Kobold Quarterly has a notably higher print quality than Level Up, with an expectedly higher price point:  $7.99 and 3.99 respectively.  Kobold Quarterly covers a variety of games, mostly of the 3.5 and 4E spectrum, while Level Up is 4E specific.

The Game Mastery Map Pack will definitely suit my needs.  The pack is made of 18 different 8” by 5” cards.  The cardboard isn’t as thick as Dungeon Tiles, but I think that’s okay.  How thick does it need to be?  These cards come ready to use: none of the perforation punching and associated waste that you’ll find with Dungeon Tiles.  The colors in this set are a little dark and muddy; I wonder if something was lost during the design translation process.

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For the Cat

“The first pancake is for the cat.”  I first heard this saying from a podcasting friend of mine as he described his initial production effort.  It was a new format for him, with a new team and new equipment.  While he wasn’t especially pleased with the outcome, he also wasn’t that disappointed or surprised.  The first pancake of the batch is never quite right, so you just plan it as a write it off.  Do cats even eat plain pancakes?  Bing and Google both failed to connect me with the original saying.

This sentiment holds true on both sides of the dungeon master’s screen in Dungeons and Dragons.  The most obvious example is in character creation.  Whether you use the DnD Insider’s Character Builder or stick with the books, there’s no way to really know how it’s going to come together until you play through an encounter or two.  Many powers have nuances that are easily overlooked; others work best in conjunction with the abilities of other characters or against certain monsters.  Sometimes things seem more fun on paper than in actual play.  For this reason, in my games it is common for new player characters to experience some retooling after their introduction.  Just last night I realized that my new druid’s magic staff’s item daily only works with arcane magic.

There are many analogous elements on the DMing side of things.  Describing environments, running encounters and negotiating the rules are skills that get better with use, and no one is as good at it initially as they will become with practice.  At the same time, most players are usually just happy to have someone DMing the game, just as cats are happy to get that first pancake.  This is what makes the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle so attractive.  Nothing is ever perfect at first, and almost everything has room for improvement.

With that in mind, it’s wise to focus on expanding a few skill sets at a time.  If you’re brand new to D&D, consider using a pre-published adventure initially.  When you start designing your own encounters, keep it relatively simple at first by limiting the number of different creature and terrain types.

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